Cheryl Lewis » Cheryl Lewis

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Bittersweet Goodbye

It has been quite a ride.

For eight months now, I’ve worked alongside tireless men and women who spend their waking hours (and quite a few dreaming ones, too) unraveling ways to help those impacted by natural disasters.

Getting the job as communications manager was a dream come true.

Ever since I felt compelled (truly, it was a compulsive, HAVE TO GO urge) to trek to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, my life has been different. Meeting Markenley and being part of the movement for change in a young boy’s future gave me new eyes. Instead of seeing what I may not have, the sheer abundance all around me is apparent at all times.

It made me hunger to do more.

So I did what many said they couldn’t really understand—closing in on 50, I took a job that would have me sleeping on air mattresses, trekking wherever necessary with a backpack (or two) slung over my shoulder and loading new apps to explain the labyrinth of subways and bus systems in cities I barely knew.

Hurricane Isaac sent us in October to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (that land mass between New Orleans and Tampa, said the media) and there I saw flooding that left thousands of animal carcasses strewn across the beaches. Jet skis passed over abandoned cars and massive, hundred-year-old oaks lay toppled beside their flailing root systems.

Superstorm Sandy wasn’t far behind, wreaking havoc across the Northeast and turning life upside down for countless residents. Last week, I met a woman who was trying to reach high enough with her shovel to knock off some of the siding on her house—but she couldn’t get near the 13-foot mark left by the water as it overtook her home. Her next-door neighbor—everyone thought he had evacuated—was found dead in his home after 11 days.

Overseas, our volunteers are still helping a community in the Philippines recover a year after a typhoon wrecked lives there.

As a cog in the engine that serves All Hands Volunteers’ quest to empower volunteers to respond to communities in need around the world, I have seen calamity faced with courage and perseverance by those we help—and also our non-profit’s unending struggle to finance the beginning of recovery.

We have been chronically underfunded and under-resourced, except when in the midst of a disaster. Somehow, the glow of the media spotlight inspires people to feel generous toward each other and for a while the money flows. So do the tears of residents as we show up to their homes, lugging shovels and crowbars and sledgehammers and the fresh enthusiasm of volunteers by the ones and dozens.

Overwhelmed homeowners are grateful for the help, true but, above all, they are blown away by the caring hearts and hands that show up to make a difference.

It never failed. When they cried, I cried.

Somehow, when you crawl down into someone’s basement, which has been turned into a mire of mess and mold, and begin to rip it to shreds so that recovery can begin, and they thank you with tears streaming, you no longer feel tempted to question their politics or ask which way their vote fell or second guess the “choices” that placed them at the mercy of a devastating storm.

You just feel grateful to be there.

Soon, I won’t be and I’m feeling a bit sad. But I’ve found that I bit off more than I can chew. Damn, it’s tough to admit that. Being unavailable to my family and friends and kids and women I committed to lead in church has become a burden and I’m missing them way too much.

It’s also a relentless challenge to function in an overtaxed role. Each person on staff knows this well. In the quest to keep overhead low, so that donors can feel confident their dollars are going directly to faces they wish to help, there generally aren’t enough warm bodies in the administrative trenches to spread the workload around. It’s why giving to the organization, as well as to the disaster at hand, is critical.

At my age, I can choose and so I’ve decided to return to the editing/publicist world. That way, I can restore a bit of sanity to my own life.

I want every person that I met this year to know that I cherish the time we spent together and the opportunity to help others on a grass-roots, down-and-dirty level. After inspiring 7,000 volunteers to help 30 communities in seven years, All Hands Volunteers is the real deal and the world needs what they continue to offer.

I hope you’ll remember to support them, even when the media goes away, and even if Mother Nature is temporarily passive. To be ready when you need them, they need occasional love and support.

They have launched their annual giving campaign—please pitch in today. (Click HERE to give.)

They’ll do the rest.

Tonight, I’ll sleep back in my comfy bed, knowing that on Staten Island and Long Island, there is a group of volunteers and staff unrolling sleeping bags and refilling air mattresses yet again.

Yes, I’m a bit wistful about my choice, but I’m a whole lot grateful for theirs.

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Sharon Padilla - Hugs to you, Cheryl! Sometimes we have to make hard choices that tug at our very heart and soul. I commend you for having done what you did to help in times of disaster. Heaven knows, at least at this stage in my life, I could not have done it. (Maybe when I was younger.) One thing we women tend to forget, and have to be reminded of from time to time, is that we have to take care of ourselves before we can begin to take care of others. I hope that you God blesses you on whatever path you choose to follow and I hope that you can feel confident in the choice that you made to step back and take a breath.

Lori - Cheryl,

You give everything you have-your whole heart-to everything you do & that is what makes you such a special person. You have made a true difference in the All Hands organization and impacted them in ways that are obvious and others you may never know.

” One person can’t change the world, but one person can change the world for someone.” – A canadian proverb

You have changed to world for many and they will forever be grateful.
It’s time for you to continue on the next step of your journey-there are other lives for you to touch in ways you don’t even know yet!

I love your heart!


elizabeth - Cheryl,
I admire you and all you do. You make us all want to be better people. We are supposed to go out there and help others and this New Yorker was glad to know that you were here and helping. love ya. elizabeth

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